Another Antagonist Against Alternate History: On Roxane Gay's “Black Lives and Slavery Fan Fiction,”

The backlash against HBO’s upcoming alternate history series, Confederate, continues.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Purdue University professor Roxane Gay published a provocative opinion piece, entitled “Black Lives and Slavery Fan Fiction,” which takes the series to task for a variety of alleged flaws, but goes beyond them to critique the broader genre of alternate history in sweeping fashion.

Gay begins by acknowledging that other alternate histories on the South winning the Civil War and slavery persisting in the present-day United States, such as Ben Winters’ recent novel, Underground Airlines, may well explore an “interesting premise.” But she then wonders “at what cost?”  At this point in her op-ed, it’s not exactly clear why exploring any literary premise needs to have a cost, at least if literature is regarded as a vehicle of individual expression.

But her concerns soon become clear.

Gay explains that she is “exhausted by slavery narratives,” especially if they reduce the topic to “an intellectual exercise rather than plainly showing it as the grossly oppressive institution it was.”  I fully agree with this fear, IF – and it’s a big IF – the resulting narrative, in fact, falls victim to this peril.  It’s a point worth raising -- though at this point, I find it to be premature.

Where I part ways with Gay is when she expresses the suspicion that the series will go down the wrong narrative path because it is “the brainchild of two white men who oversee a show that has few people of color to speak of and where sexual violence is often gratuitous.”

I’ve only just started watching Game of Thrones and I can confirm that it has few people of color and lots of sexual violence.  It is not unreasonable, therefore, to wonder whether Confederate might export these representational strategies to the topic of slavery (if it all, it probably would do so more with regard to the latter than the former).  But I’m not sure why the whiteness of the creators is of any relevance.  If the creators of Game of Thrones were not white, Gay would be just as justifiably concerned about the show’s values being exported to the era of the Civil War.  For this reason, the playing of the race card weakens her argument. 

This is especially true because Gay implies that the allohistorical premise of slavery persisting into the present is inherently suspicious – “slavery fan fiction” she calls it.  What she does not mention in her article that African Americans have tackled precisely the exact premise to be explored by Confederate.  The best example is Kevin Wilmott’s excellent film, C.S.A, which portrays a world where the South won the Civil War and preserved slavery.  Presumably Gay would not object to this particular work of alternate history – at least based on its creator’s identify. 

That there is a double standard here at work is clear.  Gay admits she knows she’s “supposed to say” that “no topic is off limits to someone simply because of who they are,” but she confesses that “it is not at all how I feel.” 

I respect the frankness of her admission.  But I fear she’s overreaching.

As a Holocaust studies scholar who has spent a great deal of time analyzing works of fiction that explore the Nazi genocide of the Jews, I can confirm that similar fears have been expressed in debates about Holocaust representation.  Jewish depictions of the Holocaust – whether by Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Cynthia Ozick, Steven Spielberg – may sometimes be subjected to different standards of judgment than depictions by non-Jews.  And maybe they should.  Yet I am unaware of many people declaring that non-Jews have no business tackling the subject.  That is true for the simple reason that non-Jews (Germans, in particular, but all Europeans, as well as the inhabitants of other countries who belonged any of the wartime alliances) performed various roles in the Holocaust -- whether as perpetrators, collaborators, or bystanders. It is a mantra of Holocaust studies that the descendants of these people bear responsibility for wrestling with its legacy.

I would argue that the same should be the case for all Americans (certainly those who are white or, broader still, not of African descent).  Regardless of whether or not our ancestors were personally involved in slavery, as citizens of this country, we all bear responsibility for learning the complex lessons from this shameful historical experience.  

Of course, the attempt to claim custodianship of a particular historical legacy or tradition is part of an ongoing debate about cultural appropriation – one dramatically illustrated by the debate over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmitt Till by at the Whitney – and seems to inform Gay’s views about Confederate.  But to my mind, it is important to defend the principle that the topic of slavery is open to all Americans who wish to engage with it.  Being white should obviously not be a disqualifying factor for dealing with the topic of slavery. 

All that being said, I do sympathize with some of Gay’s fears.

I can relate to her exhaustion with the topic of slavery to some degree, inasmuch it resembles the phenomenon of “Holocaust fatigue” in present-day culture.  “What, ANOTHER film about the Holocaust?” is a common lament.  Some viewers resent being bombarded with moralistic works of cinema, while others fear the subject is being exploited as an easy – but increasingly hackneyed – method for Hollywood directors seeking to win an Oscar. 

I can relate to her fear that Confederate may engage in cheap exploitation of the horrors of slavery – her claim that she “shudder[s] to imagine the enslaved black body in…the creative hands [of the Game of Thrones team].   After all, works of Holocaust film and fiction have long been accused of engaging in lurid and kitschy forms of exploitation – whether Liliana Cavani’s 1974 film, The Night Porter, or, more recently, Jonathan Littell’s novel, The Kindly Ones. 

I can also understand Gay’s suspicion that “there are people…who will watch a show like Confederate and see it as inspiration, rather than a cautionary tale.” This is also a common fear expressed about works dealing with the Third Reich – that they endorse, rather than just explore, a given counterfactual premise. Any alternate history portraying the Nazis winning World War II, for instance, might be suspected of celebrating the outcome rather than condemning it.  (This explains why some neo-Nazis bought up Robert Harris’s 1992 novel, Fatherland, thinking it was an endorsement of the premise, which of course it was not).   But the danger that one’s work will be misinterpreted comes with the territory of all creative work, and is hardly a reason for preemptive criticism.  Nietzsche, anyone?

Finally, I don’t agree with Gay’s claim that the best antidote to alternate histories that portray the survival of slavery is to promote works that show a “world where slavery never happened at all.” For one thing, those works already exist.  Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss’s 1994 alternate history novel, The Two Georges, portray the American Revolution failing and the British monarchy abolishing slavery in the 1830s.  Terry Bisson’s alternate history novel, Fire on the Mountain (1988), portrays how John Brown’s successful raid on Harper’s Ferry leads to Black self-emancipation. 

Gay also wonders where the works are that portray a world where “white people are enslaved,” saying “we will still not know what could have been in a world where white people imagine their own oppression.” I am not aware of as many such texts, but Walter Rodney’s book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), includes counterfactuals about Europeans and Africans trading places. 

In citing these examples, I don’t mean to reject Gay’s concerns out of hand. In our lamentable present-day political climate, Gay’s fears are understandable; political contexts always shape the reception of texts – even ones that have not yet been produced.  Yet, I maintain that the reality is not as one-side as she portrays it.

Ultimately, I agree with Gay’s point that a multiplicity of counterfactual narratives on the Civil War and slavery is desirable.  But I part ways with her on the question of who gets to produce them, what they focus on, and how their interpretations should be stage-managed.

Alternate history thrives by liberating rather than shackling the imagination.



Carl Abbott said…
Steven Barnes has two novels in which Islamic Africa is the center of technological progress and has colonized North America, with pagan Europe a source of slaves: Lion's Blood and Zulu Heart.
Those novels don't have a deleterious effect on race relations, nor would they if they were adapted as a miniseries or TV series; Confederacy does because of what's happening now politically. As was suggested on YouTube, instead of a show like this, how about one where the South not only lost the war, but everything that was promised Afro-Americans was fulfilled, and NONE of what actually happened, happened?